Dmitri Hvorostovsky (baritone)
The Philips Recitals
rec. 1990-97
No texts enclosed.
Eloquence 4844292 [11 CDs: 638]

When Dmitri Hvorostovsky – surprisingly to many – won the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World in 1989, he rapidly catapulted to stardom and was more or less overnight in demand everywhere. Philips also signed up the then 26-year-old Siberian without delay, and in February 1990, he recorded his first solo album in Rotterdam with his compatriot Valery Gergiev at the helm of the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a programme of opera arias by Tchaikovsky and Verdi. It was to be followed by another ten albums and also several complete operas: Eugene Onegin, Pique Dame, La Traviata, Cavalleria rusticana and Don Carlos. He made his Covent Garden debut in the spring of 1992 in Bellini’s I puritani opposite June Anderson and Giuseppe Sabbatini; I was lucky to be in London at the time and heard him in his blossoming youth. A souvenir from that occasion can be found on CD 4 of this box, where he sings Riccardo’s aria from the first act. The role was originally sung by the legendary Tamburini. The aria was part of an album with bel canto arias and was recorded in July 1992, only weeks after the Covent Garden performances. I also heard him later as Posa in Don Carlo at the Vienna State Opera. The reason for issuing this comprehensive box with all his recital discs for Philips was that he would have turned 60 on 17 October 2022. Sadly, he died of a brain tumour on 22 November 2017, on the day five years before I started writing this review. 

Returning to these recitals, several of which I bought when they were new, has been both uplifting and depressing. Uplifting for the pleasure of hearing again the youthful voice with the velvety tone and following his development and maturing during the seven years this box encompasses. Depressing to know that he no longer is among us and that he might have been able to treat us to further great recordings for several years, to judge from his last recordings, where he certainly wasn’t a singer in decline. 

The debut album, mentioned above, finds him in arias from several operas that were close to him, some of which he had already recorded complete or were scheduled to be: Pique Dame, Eugene Onegin, La Traviata and within a few years Don Carlos. His debut in the West in Nice in 1989 was in Pique Dame, and one of the arias he sang in the Cardiff competition was Per me giunto from Don Carlos. The freshness of his singing is a joy to hear and his love and affinity for both composers is obvious. Besides the ones listed so far, he also tackled Macbeth, Luisa Miller, Il trovatore and three more Tchaikovsky operas: The Sorceress, Iolanta and Mazeppa. The one piece that stands out as less interesting than the rest is Germont’s aria from La Traviata. There is nothing wrong with his singing per se; his legato is impeccable, and he finishes both stanzas with a well-judged diminuendo, but he doesn’t seem to sympathize with the character. The reading is shallow, perhaps because of the singer’s tender age and Germont being an older gentleman – but Miller in Luisa Miller is also an elderly father, and that role is excellently negotiated. Macbeth is another character who has come of age, and his big aria is sung with full understanding of his predicament, but with hindsight one deduces that Germont eludes Hvorostovsky. He recorded Traviata complete two years later with Kiri Te Kanawa and Alfredo Kraus, and Hvorostovsky was gruff and forbidding also in this aria which should be a declaration of love to his beloved Provence; a DVD production under Lorin Maazel with Patricia Ciofi in the title role from around 2010 also found him in stern and unsubtle form and even later a live recording from the Vienna State Opera revealed the same characteristics. But this, as I say, is an isolated phenomenon, and mine is moreover a personal reaction rather than an objective truth. 

CD 2 was recorded less than a half year later, in July 1990, and presents Romances by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov. They are melodious and, especially those by Tchaikovsky, often dramatic and intense. They are relatively frequently recorded and heard also in the West but, apart from a few, never reached the popularity of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Strauss and Wolf, for mainly linguistic reasons. I have in the past reviewed complete sets of both composers’ oeuvres and found that they speak to me, even though I have to depend on translations to understand the texts. But such is their power that it is fully possible to enjoy the songs purely as music – as long as the interpreter understands them and is able to convey the moods and feelings. When it comes to Hvorostovsky, he obviously feels very strongly for both composers and invests the songs with strong passions, sometimes bordering on overkill, but everything seems genuine, coming from the heart, and he also conjures up intimate feelings, expressed so telling with velvety pianissimo tones. It is worth noting that he opens the recital with the last song from Tchaikovsky’s Six songs, Op. 73, which was among his last compositions, followed only by the Pathétique symphony and the third piano concerto. He recorded the song again twenty years later, then in harness with the rest of the songs and coupled with Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death and a group of songs by Taneyev (review). 

His interest in – one could even say love for – Russian music, also manifests itself in his recordings of Russian folk songs. Two full CDs in this box (CD 3 and CD 9) are devoted to this repertoire. In the first one he is accompanied by the Ossipov Russian Folk Orchestra with balalaikas and other traditional folk instruments – and they also include singers – in the second he is backed up by St. Petersburg Chamber Choir. There is playing and singing of the highest order; many of the songs are probably unknown to many listeners in the West – apart from the title songs Dark Eyes and Kalinka – but there is a plethora of beautiful, dramatic and rhythmically vigorous music here and also – on CD 3 – a couple of purely instrumental pieces. 

On CD 4 he treats us to a dozen bel canto arias. Several of them are well-known, but there are also some relative rarities. To the former category belongs the factotum aria from Il barbiere di Siviglia, which was the only comic role in his stage repertoire. He sings gloriously but initially seems a little faceless. Later, however, one can feel the twinkle in his eye. The arias from Donizetti’s two comical masterpieces, L’elisir d’amore and Don Pasquale, are sung with attractive lightness, and especially Malatesta’s aria from Don Pasquale is exquisitely nuanced. Tell’s Resta immobile from Guglielmo Tell (he sings the Italian version) is serious, almost stern, and he sounds elderly. Enrico’s aria from the first act of Lucia di Lammermoor is also stern and rigid, but in the remaining Donizetti arias he is truly nuanced. The aria from Il Duca d’Alba is especially beautifully nuanced. The opera in itself is not very often heard, and that also goes for Poliuto, and it is good to for once hear the aria out of context. I can’t remember hearing it separately before. Isolated arias from Bellini’s Il pirate are also seldom heard, and that also goes for the baritone aria from I puritani. It is soft and velvety. It is a marvellous voice, but hearing him in a long sequence of arias I feel a kind of sameness, irrespective of which character he impersonates. 

The central work on CD 5 is Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death. It is sung with Shostakovich’s orchestration, and this is also music he returned to on records. Some ten years later he recorded it, in the same orchestration, in a live recording from Albert Hall (review), and another ten years later he recorded the original version with piano on the disc with Tchaikovsky and Taneyev mentioned above. The rest of this disc is occupied by Russian opera arias, most of them seldom heard, at least in the West. Four operas by Rimsky-Korsakov, of which The Tsar’s Bride Hvorostovsky recorded complete, Borodin’s only opera Prince Igor, The Demon and Nero by Anton Rubinstein – the tracklist in the booklet mistakenly names him Arthur Rubinstein and gives the birth and death years for the legendary Polish pianist. The correct dates for Anton are 1829 – 1894. The fourth composer is Rachmaninov, whose Aleko is also seldom heard. The disc is valuable both for Hvorostovsky’s first and freshest Songs and Dances of Death and for the opera rarities.

On CD 6, Hvorostovsky continues his traversal of the Russian song repertoire. Tchaikovsky dominates this time, and I note that he also this time features a song from Op. 73, which is otherwise infrequently heard. Rachmaninov also gets his fair share, and it is good to hear a very beautiful song by Borodin and three by Rimsky-Korsakov – neither of them heard very often, which certainly is our loss. 

Titled Credo, CD 7 is a collection of Russian sacred songs from the 20th century. The composers are presumably little known in the West, but the songs are throughout solemn and moving. They are sung with deep identification by the eminent St. Petersburg Chamber Choir under Nikolai Korniev, and Hvorostovsky sings as an equal, not as a star with anonymous background. Of course, he sings like a god; still, it is Yuri Sakhnovsky’s Otche nach (Our Father), sung by the choir alone, that makes the strongest impression.

On CD 8 Rachmaninov meets Georgy Sviridov (1915 – 1998), a Soviet composer little known in the West – until this disc was issued in 1996. Hvorostovsky was then firmly established as one of the great contemporary singers, and a new CD with him was an event. It turned out that the young singer developed strong personal bonds with the ageing composer, who even composed songs specifically for him. Russia Cast Adrift was originally composed for tenor and piano, and Sviridov also made a subsequent version for mezzo-soprano which he performed and recorded with Elena Obraztsova. Mikhail Arkadiev later made an arrangement for baritone especially for Hvorostovsky, which the duo performed around the world during the 1990s. It has also been given an arrangement for orchestra, which Hvorostovsky recorded in 2017, shortly before his demise. The twelve songs are deeply moving, alternately violently dramatic, and Sviridov has a distinct voice of his own. I have so far only briefly touched them but will certainly return to them. That they meant a lot to Hvorostovsky is obvious from his emotional way of singing them. 

That the contract with Philips was discontinued after these eleven discs, may have confounded many, but Hvorostovsky said later, when he already had signed for Delos: ‘They were more interested in crossover material’ and thought he had fulfilled that with the folk-songs-with-balalaika-accompaniment disc (CD 3). Whether the penultimate disc with Arie Antiche can be regarded as crossover is a moot point. They are songs and arias from the 17th and 18th centuries but arranged for voice and piano towards the end of the 19th century according to the taste of the time. Here they are further arranged for orchestra – two of them by Hvorostovsky himself – and he also includes some 18th century arias by Gluck, Handel and Vivaldi that one normally doesn’t regard as Arie Antiche. When a powerful baritone, who normally sings Verdi, tackles this repertoire, there is always a risk for overkill, but Hvorostovsky adjusts to the situation, only rarely becoming stentorian and pompous, and when he does one must still admire and savour the beauty of his voice. Generally, he lightens the tone and also negotiates the coloratura skilfully in Carissimi’s Vittoria, mio core! But sings a lot at a constant forte – which maybe male singers did also in the late 19th century. In Gluck’s O del mio dolce ardor he is soft and sensitive, and I would have had hoped he would have scaled down even more in Caro mio ben, which he doesn’t – but he makes a lovely diminuendo on the last phrase and also sports a good trill. 

Handel’s not so often heard Dignare o Domine from the Dettingen Te Deum is sung with great restraint, Caldara’s Selve amiche is beautifully realised and Gluck’s Che faro is also tastefully sung. Everybody knows Handel’s most famous aria Ombra mai fù, once often called“Handel’s Largo”, but not everyone knows that it is the opening aria from his opera Serse (or Xerxes). The recitative has a touch of theatre, but the Larghetto just flows effortlessly and lyrically. Sorge infausta from Orlando is a vital dramatic with lavish embellishment and a deep-sea diving to the bottom of the baritone register, and he negotiates it expertly. The real highlights are the anonymous Nina and Caccini’s Amarilli. These are the two titles Hvorostovsky arranged himself, which he did in the simplest possible way: accompanied by a sole theorbo. These are heavenly!

For the last album Philips and Hvorostovsky turned to standard operatic repertoire and invited the baritone’s compatriot, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, who also was on their contract list. With arias and duets from four favourite operas, this was a glorious finale to Hvorostovsky’s first decade in the limelight. In Il barbiere di Siviglia he reprises the factotum aria from five years earlier, and Borodina is featured in Rosina’s cavatina. From La favorita he sings again Vien, Leonora, this time preceded with the recitative, and in The Tsar’s Bride the aria S uma neydot krasavitsa gets another outing. The longest scene is the final track, the duet from the second act of Samson et Dalila. It is a grandiose conclusion to a fruitful collaboration of Philips, Hvorostovsky and producer Anna Barry, who has presided over all the 11 discs and writes her personal memories of their cooperation in the booklet. 

This is a glorious collection that should be dipped into, maybe one dozen numbers at a time at the most; I wisely spread out the listening sessions over a period of two months, and recommend readers to do the same. It is a box that every fan of Dmitri Hvorostovsky should have in his/her collection, but all lovers of good singing should also invest in it. Consumed with restraint it will be a source for delight for years to come.

Göran Forsling

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The error noted in the booklet has been corrected. Revised versions can be obtained by contacting Eloquence: